David Farbey wrote a semi-existentialist post on the challenges for technical communicators yesterday. I’d like to look at the issue in a different way, by looking at the big questions in technical communication today. The answers to these questions (which may be decided by people outside of the profession) are likely to affect the future direction for technical communicators.
Mindtouch has published its latest (2014) list of most influential Techcomm experts, and, once again, Ellis Pratt of Cherryleaf is ranked as the highest ranked technical communications professional outside of the USA.
Little Bird measures the popularity and frequency of people’s blog posts, tweets and activities on sites like Facebook and YouTube, so this is a list of of influencers across the social web:
MindTouch has been publishing these reports since 2009 by using data generated from Little Bird to amplify success, create new relationships, and spark discussions.
Who influences you, and how do they influence you? Does the social web have any influence on your role as a technical communicator? Please share your thoughts.
On Monday, I spoke at the Visma Developer Days conference in Riga, Latvia, about some issues software companies have to address when migrating from developing on-premises software to Software as a Service.
One of the of the biggest changes is that the revenues are spread over the lifetime of customer – they pay on a monthly basis rather than an initial up-front payment. It becomes vital customers don’t give up on using the software after only a short while, because you won’t have earnt much income from that customer. If the software is difficult to use, and if users cannot find the answers to questions when they need them, there’s a good chance they will stop using the software, and stop paying their subscription fees.
We’re seeing a number of software companies changing their approach to providing user assistance (user documentation). More companies are thinking about it at the start of the project, so they can do a better job of delivering user documentation than they’ve done for on-premises software. They’re seeing documentation as part of the customer journey, and part of the design process.
This is welcome news, although it requires development teams to combine product design with information design. I wonder if there’ll be similar trends emerging at the next conference I’ll be attending – MadWorld 2014.
Many software companies, when they start out, provide user documentation as downloadable PDFs or as web pages. As they develop more products and versions, and as they expand into countries that use different English spellings, the amount of documents can grow until it becomes hard to keep all of these documents up to date.
It’s at this point that they tend to call a specialist technical writing company (such as Cherryleaf) to see if they can fix the problem for them. We find they’ve usually had a brief look at a Help Authoring tool, such as Flare or RoboHelp, and can see that it would solve a lot of their problems. However, they’re often not really sure how to use these tools in the best way.
Although topic-based authoring has been around for over twenty years, for many people it’s a completely new concept. It is, to quote from either Hamlet or Star Trek VI, an undiscovered country. Our meetings with them often end up focusing on the benefits of topic-based authoring.
Topic-based writing is an approach where you write a piece of text (or topics) that typically contains a paragraph or two about a single topic. These topics can be combined to create a page in a PDF document, and they can be organised in a sequence to create an online Help system ( See topic-based authoring page in Wikipedia). It’s a modular approach to creating content. The main advantage of this approach is the topics are often reusable; you can save time by reusing topics across different documents, and you can publish the same content to different media. For example, you could use a topic in training courseware, in a user guide and in marketing information.
As each topic is usually about a specific subject, and has an identifiable purpose, it can also help the writer write more clearly. If you need longer articles, you can build these up from the topics you’ve created.
It’s easy for professional Technical Authors to forget sometimes that many people have never come across this approach to writing before.
We noticed last week a few tweets in our Twitter stream about how technical documentation and user assistance will be turning into a conversation.
Informal, verbal, interactive, spontaneous communication is quite different from pretty much all forms of User Assistance you’ll see today, so what do technical communicators mean by “conversation”?
Interviews with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are some of the most useful sources for Technical Authors when they are gathering information about a product or procedure. This often involves asking a developer or departmental manager a series of questions focused on the types of questions end users are likely to ask.
Interviewing is one of those dark arts that Technical Authors pick up over time – techniques for getting SMEs to find the time to speak to you and review your drafts, ways to avoid conversations meandering away from what the user will want to know, tools for capturing the interview, and so on.
So what tools should you use?
Coming armed with biscuits (cookies in the USA) is probably the most effective tool! After that, the most useful tool to have is a voice recording device. If you have a smartphone, in effect, you have a digital voice recorder. There are many voice recording apps for both iOS and Android, but the one we like is Recordium.
In addition to recording audio, Recordium also enables you annotate the voice recording. You can highlight and tag certain parts of audio recordings (for example: to indicate a new topic or to mark sections that relate to definitions of terms etc), and add attachments to those sections as well. You can use it, in effect, as an audio-orientated note clipping application, similar to Evernote.
Recordium also enables you to vary the playback speed. We’ve found this useful when SMEs are using specialist terminology – you can slow down the recording to check what it was they actually said. Listening at a faster speed is also a useful way of reviewing a recording quickly.
Technical Authors still need to transcribe sections of the interview, so it becomes text. Unfortunately, Text-to-Speech applications still have some way to go. Dragon Dictation is available for Apple devices, and ListNote offers similar functionality for Android. However, even if you are just a two fingered typist, you’re probably better off transcribing the audio yourself.
Are there any other apps you’d recommend? Let us know.
Mark the Roofer came round to replace a broken tile on our roof late last week, and he told us that the Velux windows we’d had installed were fitted incorrectly. Apparently, up until two years ago, Velux windows needed to be fitted to the rafters, but now they should be installed onto a batten.
The consequence of fitting the newer style windows using the old method is they aren’t set high enough on the roof. The result is rainwater doesn’t drain freely, and is only held back by the surrounding felt. As the felt degrades over time (he said it’s usually two to three years), water starts to drip through into the room below.
The Velux installation guides and videos are actually very clear and well written, so it seems the reason why some builders seem to be installing the windows incorrectly is because they haven’t read the instructions in the last two years.
This roofer has read them, and makes a habit of checking any Velux windows he sees on the roofs he’s working on. It means he is able follow up many of his small £20 tile replacement jobs with larger £400 Velux re-installation projects. Sometimes, reading the manual pays.
Screencasts and video based learning content are growing in popularity, and we’re seeing a rise in the number of enquiries for this type of content.
Estimating the time required to develop this type of content can vary quite considerably. The easiest way to estimate the time required is to use metrics based on the duration of the screencast or video.
A simple walkthrough of a task or applications screen can take between 10:1 (ten minutes to produce one minute of a screencast) and 100:1. The most generally quoted figure we’ve seen is 30:1.
If you want to add audio to your screencast, this is likely to be closer to 200:1. That’s because you’ll probably need to write a script, record the audio, adjust the audio quality, add the audio to the animation, and so on.
If you want to include video of a presenter, this will make the presentation look more professional, but it will mean you’ll need to allocate more time to development and production. In this case, you’ll be looking at a ratio closer to 300:1.You can reduce the time by using avatars (images of a presenter) instead of a real presenter. Adobe Captivate comes bundled with sets of avatars to help you do this.
Another factor is the level of professionalism you want to achieve. It can take time and effort to produce high quality audio and video. Lighting, in particular, can be a challenge. Adding quizzes and exercises will also have a significant impact on the time required. Creating your own music bed (a musical background to the narration) will also increase the time required. In the past, we’ve purchased audio background music files under licence, as it saved time.
What’s your experience? How long does it take you to create this type of content. Please share your thoughts below.